Six on Saturday-Jan 27

Sunrise 1-18 compressed  #1 are the lovely sunrises we’ve been blessed with recently.  I wish I were a better photographer to accurately capture the colors, which are more vivid than they appear above.  The day began with this lovely, pastel sunrise and a shrinking snow cover from rising temperatures.  Hallelujah! After two weeks of single digits, a too-brief two-day January thaw, and then two more weeks of single digits anything above freezing seemed absolutely balmy!   However, I was worried about the plants because during the first frigid spell there was no snow cover for insulation and protection.  By afternoon, all the snow was gone, except on north-facing slopes and heavily shaded areas.  #2.  I took advantage of the warm (51 degrees!) to put away the outdoor Christmas decorations and lights.  Next was a walkabout to assess damage.  Surprisingly, the perennials seem fine.  Witness these “Fairie Queen” foxgloves that are much livelier than I expected.

Foxglove 1-18 compressed  And the Sedum “Angelina” seems perfectly happy.  Sedum Angelina 1-18 compressed And although the lavenders are still surrounded by snow, they seem fine as well.  This one is actually a lavandin.  Lavandin 1-18 compressed  The primulas behind the Lady Cottage are nicely green.Primula 1-18 compressed  So, #3 is that despite the frigid, record cold the perennials seem to be thriving….at least so far.  Next was a tour inside the potager.  I planted some spinach and Brussel sprouts late last summer, intending to cover them with a poly tunnel.  When my back went out, that didn’t happen.  I really expected them to be totally freeze-dried, but surprisingly the spinach looks pretty good.  Spinach 1-18 compressed  Research says that the varieties with heavily crinkled leaves overwinter better than smooth leaves, so I’ve noted that in my planting journal for next season.  The Brussel sprouts don’t look lovely, but they aren’t dead, so I’ll leave them and see if they make any sprouts in the warmer weeks ahead.  Brussel surviving 1-18 compressed It’s an experiment.  So #4 is that there is actually a bit of hope for these late crops, and I wasn’t expecting any to have survived.  Surprise #5 were these happy little Black Seeded Simpson lettuce seedlings that have sprouted!  They self-seeded from plants that were grown to hide fading tulip foliage in the potager’s interior borders.  Happy dance time!  They are everywhere; salads ahead!Lettuce seedlings 1-18 compressed   And finally, #6 are the pointed spears of various bulbs (these are daffodils) pushing through the soil, promising beauty and color when Spring does arrive.  Daffodil tips 1-18 compressed  I know there is still more winter to come, but just having this tiny respite renews hope.  And, I am truly amazed that the plants have done so well despite the record cold over such an extended time.  And, this is the final Saturday for January!  That’s worth a celebration in itself!  Bring on romantic February, longer days and seed starting time!

Thanks to The Propagator for hosting the “Six on Saturday” meme.  Go to his site and see all those who’ve joined the fun.

Posted in gardening, Potager, Six on Saturday, Uncategorized, winter | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 11 Comments

Basil Seed Caviar

jim-wilson-Kendra-Martin-a-200x300 It’s funny sometimes how memories click in.  While sorting various basil seeds into the seed box (see “Winter Projects” post for more on that) a memory of gardening author Jim Wilson’s visit to my herb farm years ago flashed.  He was still host of the “Victory Garden” television show at the time.  We became good friends over the years.  Unfortunately, he passed away in 2010 and I still miss him.  He was the author of over a dozen books, the last being “Homegrown Vegetables, Fruits and Herbs.”  My favorite of his works was “Landscaping with Herbs.”  Jim was an encyclopedia of gardening knowledge, and just listening to his deep southern drawl was a delight.  I recall a time we were walking about my gardens and talking about seed sowing lore, like “Plant peas when the daffodil blooms.”  Typically, the old lore is based on science that old-timers just couldn’t explain, but knew worked.  Jim contributed, “Stomp on basil seeds or they’ll go to the devil.”  When I looked perplexed, he explained that basil has a gelatinous covering that helps hold moisture until the seed germinates.  If you sprinkle the seeds on soil and water them, the covering swells and sometimes pushes them out of the ground, where they dry out and die.  “Stomping” on them ensures they will stay covered and germinate.  Whenever I sow basil seeds, I always remember Jim’s story and press them into the soil securely.

Sorting through leftover seeds for the potager, I had several packets of old basil seed and decided to do some germination tests by putting them in moist paper towels for a few days.  When I checked them two hours later, they were swollen, glossy black balls.  They looked like caviar, and I immediately thought how delicious those pungent seeds could be.  Basil seeds soaking compressed It took some experimenting, but I found that soaking the seeds for at least 30 min. softened them nicely, but still left a little crunch in the texture.  You’ll need at least 1 1/2 tsp. water per 1 tsp. seeds.  This will make slightly over 2 tsp. of “caviar.” Seeds that are very old or stored in paper envelopes rather than foil or plastic may need another 1/2 tsp. water.  They also often will not have quite as much flavor.  I have  left seeds soaking (covered in the refrigerator) overnight and they still retained a bit of nice crunch.

Sprinkle them on a cream cheese spread cracker, or use them to garnish a deviled egg.  Make a salad of tomato and mozzarella slices with a thin stripe of “caviar” down the center, or to garnish around an elegant tomato aspic (ala “You’ve Got Mail,” where Tom Hanks spoons up all the caviar to Meg Ryan’s horror!)  Let your imagination be your guide!  It’s a great way to get a bit of mild basil flavor until the seeds you’ve sown produce enough leaves to harvest, or to use seeds left from past years that may not germinate well.  I use any variety of basil, the Italian or Green types, purples, and even lemon basil.

So, check your old seeds.  Or, the next time you buy seeds, purchase an extra packet or two to make a tasty caviar.  If you don’t buy organic seeds (please do!) be sure to give them a good rinse.  Seeds in packets should be black.  If they are pink, purple, blue, green, or some other color, they have been treated with a fungicide and should not be used for culinary purposes.

Basil caviar canape compressed  Here’s my recipe for “Basil Seed Caviar Spread” shown above.  Drain 1-15.5 can cannelloni beans.  Place in bowl and mash with pastry blender or potato masher until beans have lost their shape.  Add 1 T. olive oil; generous grinding of black pepper; 1 T. lemon juice, 2 tsp. finely chopped onion or shallot; 1 tsp. dried basil finely ground; and two dashes hot sauce.  Mix well.  Spread about ½” thick on round sesame or whole wheat crackers or thinly sliced baguette.  Cut narrow strips of roasted red peppers to make an interesting curve and place on top of spread.  Add a small dollop of “basil caviar” in the center.  12-14 servings.

Be innovative!  And don’t throw out those old basil seeds!


Posted in Basil, garden books, garden lore, gardening, Recipes, seeds, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

Six on Saturday-Jan 20

It’s been bitter cold for weeks, but suddenly the snow is melting and slosh turning to mud is the outlook for the weekend.  All this “stuck indoors time” has given me the opportunity to consider improvements and skills for the coming season.  So here’s my top Six for Saturday!  Rain chain compressed  I saw this adorable rain chain during GardenWalk in Buffalo, NY.   If you need inspiration for gardening in small spaces, or innovative gardening ideas design or plant-wise, go to GardenWalk (July 28 & 29, 2018!)  There are over 400 beautiful, creative urban gardens open for visits in one weekend.  This rain chain was the creation of Jim Charlier, who blogs at Art of Gardening.  You should visit his blog just to see his shed.  It’s amazing.  Or his Harry Potter Garden.  But I digress….. I think I need a rain chain like that one for the Lady Cottage, don’t you?       I saw this apple tree on our trip to Normandy last fall.  Apple tree columnar compressed  If I could learn to grow a columnar apple tree, there would be room for one in my potager, or maybe even two! Or maybe I should try an espalier like this potted one awaiting planting at P. Allen Smith’s Moss Mountain kitchen garden: MM espalier  I wonder what the price tag is on a beauty like that!  Not sure I can live long enough to grow one like that myself, or afford a potted one but it sure would be lovely along the fence or against the Lady Cottage.

In another garden in Buffalo, I saw these colorful allium seed heads, and thought “If I sprayed mine bright orange, they’d add a spark to the potager’s interior border in that gap between spring bulbs and the slower annuals.”  Spray them after they are done blooming on a nice, dry sunny day.allium sprayed compressed  What do you think?  Too garish?  I think I’ll give it a go, and if it’s too much, they can always be clipped off.

I’ve been reading lots of Brit’s posts about growing sweet peas with great envy.  I do manage to grow a few, like this one in a pot.Sweet peawhich was quite lovely, but there were so few and by the time they bloomed the heat was on.  All the ones I planted along the fence between the Lady Cottage and greenhouse were devoured by rabbits.  I did learn I need to pinch off the tops to make them bushier, which I’ve never done (but wouldn’t that slow them down even more?)  so I’ll give them an earlier start, pinch, and put chicken wire along the bottom to keep the rabbits from feasting on them.  During this cold, cold spell I’ve had lots of time to review all the photos I took during last season.   Here’s one of the North Island bed. North Island shastas compressed  One of the things I noticed is that it needs some shastas at the west (far) end to balance the ones on the east (front) end.  And maybe I need to make the entire island a bit bigger, especially at the far end.  So, I’ll be seeding more shastas along with the violas and pansies this weekend.  That’s my “Six on Saturday.”  What plans are you making for the coming season?

Thanks to “The Propagator” for sponsoring the “Six on Saturday” meme.  And hey, aren’t you impressed?  I finally figured out how to do the link part! (I hope!)

Posted in fruit trees, garden decor, garden travel, gardening, Potager, Six on Saturday, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 16 Comments

Winter projects

Gardeners often get frustrated during the winter.  Right now it is 4 degrees F, with gusty winds that make it feel even colder.  The gardens are covered not only with snow, but with an icy crust.  Tattered seed catalogs form a stack by a favored chair, on the off chance we think of some variety we might have forgotten to order, but the reality is that the budget is already spent, and there will be enough seeds arriving to plant a garden many times larger than the actual space available.  We are itching to get started on the upcoming season, but what to do?  What to do?  Well, here are some ideas!

flats-compressed 1.  Clean those used flats, domes, pots and labels, soaking in a weak bleach solution to kill diseases, insect eggs, and other horrors.  Seeding time will be here soon!

2.  Clean garden tools, if you didn’t get to it last fall.  Oil to prevent rust on metal parts and rub linseed oil into handles to extend their lifetime

Seed box compressed  3.  Organize seeds that have arrived by planting dates, and if you haven’t worked that out yet, better get started!  The photo is of my “indoor” seed box.  There is another for “direct” seeding outdoors.  Having two boxes makes it easier to grab and go.  The cardboard dividers have the date for seeding in the upper right hand corner, and a list of the crops that need to be seeded then.  That makes it easy when seeds arrive to drop them into the correct slot, or after first seedings are made, to move leftover seeds into the proper spot for the next sowing.

4.  Review your harvest journal to see when first pickings occurred.  Can you bump up the planting time a few days to get an earlier harvest?  Did successive plantings come off as planned, or could you squeeze in just one more late planting, especially if there were protection from early frosts?

5.  And speaking of protection, why not make a cold frame or get supplies in now for a poly tunnel.  As soon as the ground thaws, the poles can go in, covers can go on, and an early crop can be sown of spinach, arugula, corn salad, etc.

Seed stand compressed  6. Check the seeding rack to see if light bulbs need to be replaced.  I picked up an extra timer during the after Christmas sales so I can divide the shelving unit into two sections with varied light as required this year.  And seeing this photo reminds that I need to fix that sagging shelf!

7.  As soon as the ground thaws, take a walkabout to check for plants that may have heaved out of the ground, and push them back in.  Throw a bit of mulch on top to prevent it happening again.  Sadly, winter is not over…..

8.  Spend a lovely time looking at the photos you took of various garden areas last season.  If there are bare spots, check the date taken and look for plants that bloom at that time that can be added.

9.  Planning on growing vertical?  Make an obelisk and paint it a lively color.  Or, make those durable tomato cages out of cattle panels that you’ve always wanted.  The “L” design works best, because they can be taken apart and stacked easily in a relatively small space in the off season.

Garden journal map compressed 10.  Get your garden journal organized for the coming season.  I prefer a 3-ring notebook with separate dividers for bulbs, indoor seeding, direct seeding, companion planting (I always forget who likes what!) and graph paper maps of planting areas so I know what will go where.  I keep seed lists there, photos of bulbs planted so I can recognize them and record when they begin and end blooming beside the pictures, recipes for fertilizer mixes and insect sprays, etc.

11. Take a quick inventory of pantry and freezer.  Do you need to can more diced tomatoes?  I do.  And, I’m nearly out of dried parsley and thyme, frozen sliced peppers (too many diced though) broccoli raab and broccoli.  And I need fewer shallots and garlic, but more storage onions this year.

12. I want something pretty to hang on the potager’s front gate.  A sign maybe, or a spring wreath?  Or a half bucket planted in pansies?  Now is a good time to give this some thought and make a plan to actually make something or look through catalogs for that perfect item.

13. If there’s a mild day, the wicker furniture in the gazebo needs a good cleaning, and some pieces need a coat of paint.  Spring is too hectic with planting, mulching, etc. for such a time-consuming task.  Even if I don’t get it painted, I’ll get the paint on hand so when  that perfect weatherwise bit of time finally arrives, it won’t be spent running to town for supplies!

That’s a few of the things on my list to get accomplished during the “down time” of winter.  It’s a bit bigger than usual because of my back problems last fall.  Your list may be different, longer or shorter.  Even if only one item is accomplished, you will feel better for having achieved it, and your upcoming season will be better for having done it.

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The Good Witch

Witch hazels Philly  This time of year, gardeners are filled with longing for green, but we’ll settle for even a glimpse of growing.  We search for the tiniest hint that spring is on the way.  If you are impatient, as I am, consider planting a native herb that is an early herald of spring, Hamamelis virginiana, or witch hazel.  The famous garden writer, Vita Sackville-West described it thus:

“And the Witch-hazel, Hamamelis mollis,

That comes before its leaf on naked bough,

Torn ribbons frayed, of yellow and maroon

And sharp of scent in frosty English air.”

The Hamamelis mollis of which she speaks is the Chinese witch hazel, brought to England in 1879.  It quickly became a popular plant for its fragrant, very early bloom.  One of its folk names is “winter bloom.”  In the photo at the top, the blooming shrubs on the left and right sides are witch hazels displaying their pale yellow ribbons.  Before you wonder, no it’s not my garden, but photos I took one year at the fabulous Philadelphia Flower Show.

Do not be hesitant to include this plant in your garden, wary of the term “witch” because it has nothing to do with wicked, warted crones.  In olden days, inexpensive fencing was accomplished by growing dense shrubs and weaving the branches (wyches) together to enclose livestock and keep out intruders.  When colonists came to the New World, the growth of the Hamamelis reminded them of that form, which led to its name.

However, if you prefer to think it more magical or related to witches, there are some who thought the plant must have unusual powers because of its seed capsules having the uncanny ability to shoot seeds over twenty feet in mid-autumn.  Forked witch hazel branches have also been the traditional choice to use as divining rods or “witching rods” to locate underground water, sometimes called “witching for water.”

Witch hazel close up compressed    The fragrant, ribbony-yellow blooms of witch hazel are some of the earliest to appear, especially if given a sheltered easterly exposure.  It can tolerate light shade, and in fact prefers it in drier locations.  Ideally it loves a loamy, well-draining soil, neutral to lightly acidic and grows happily in Zones 4-8 (some say 3-9.)   Since I have heavy clay, which they don’t fancy, I’ll definitely have to work on soil improvement before planting. The large toothed leaves provide a dappled shade in summer and turn brilliant yellow in autumn.  Take care in making a selection for growing, because not all witch hazels are hardy in all zones.  Also, some bloom in autumn rather than in late winter, and some have the unfortunate characteristic to bloom while still holding their leaves, which obscures the flowering.

The Chicago Botanic Garden is currently trialing dozens of varieties of witch hazels and invites the public to come see the show these plants put on in February.  The plants are in their second year. They will also publish their evaluations on their website, so you can benefit from their data and observations.  After their first year analysis, I’m considering “Little Suzie,” “Arnold Promise,” “Sunburst,” and “Sandra” but “Jelena” and “Pallida” might also be in the running, depending upon their performance this year.

An astringent lotion distilled from witch hazel’s bark, twigs and leaves has long been used to soften skin, relieve insect bites, treat varicose veins, bruises and swelling.  It makes an excellent alcohol-free skin cleanser and after shave.  Leaves can be steeped in boiling water, which is strained used as a foot bath to ease sore feet.

Witch hazel is a relative of the sweet gum tree, and fothergilla shrubs.  It is the birthday flower for  August 9th, symbolizing changeability, consolation, inspiration and enchantment.

I’ll be searching for various varieties of witch hazels to add to my gardens in the coming months.  The internet shows colors ranging from nearly white through yellows and oranges to deep maroon, achieved in many cases by crossing H. mollis and H. virginiana.  Hopefully, next winter I’ll have some fragrant ribbon blooms to enjoy.

Posted in gardening, shrubs, Uncategorized, winter planning | Tagged , , , | 14 Comments

Green Bridges

Green bridges poster compressed  Everyone is concerned about pollinators, and rightly so.  May I make a suggestion?  The Herb Society of America sponsors a program called “Green Bridges.”  It’s primary goal is to form “bridges” of not only safe passage for pollinators, providing food and water for them, but also to save important plants.  Each Green Bridges garden is a link in the chain across America, providing safe movement for the plants and pollinators that help maintain healthy ecosystems.

The focus is on native herbs, because they are generally excellent plants for pollinators, and many of the plants themselves are under stress from development, climate change, habitat fragmentation, non-native invasive species, and over-collection of some plant species in the wild.  Native herbs and plants are important not only because of their usefulness to pollinators, but also by definition they have value as one or more of the following:  flavoring, medicine, cosmetic, industrial, ornament or economic.  They also help clean the air, filter water, moderate the climate and more.  Millions of insects rely on plants for food, and countless wildlife species find them beneficial in one way or another.

You may not think that you grow many native herbs, but you will be amazed how many common plants fall into that category, especially if you grow without lawn chemicals, have fencerows or even small wooded areas.  If you need assistance, the HSA will help.  Green Bridges cert compressed   If you’d like to participate, simply go to  and download the application.  On it you’ll describe your garden and list the plants, especially any native herbs you grow.  Mail it, along with a check ($15 for HSA members, $20 for non-members) to the Herb Society of America.  If accepted, your garden will be a certified Green Bridges garden and you will receive this sign to place in your garden. Green bridges sign compressed  Sorry, this program is for American gardens only, but those of you across the globe should check to see if there are similar movements available locally.


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Mad Hatter Peppers

Mad Hatter pepper 8-12-17 compressed  The seed catalogs are arriving daily and dreams and hopes for next season’s “best ever” harvest are spiraling upward.  As you are planning next year’s garden, may I suggest a new pepper variety to try?  As a Garden Writer of America, I often receive seeds for new plants that will be coming on the market in the upcoming season.  This past August, I was given new pepper seeds to trial called “Mad Hatter” bred by Pan American Seeds.  I planted the seeds the day I got home, germination was excellent, and in summer’s heat the plants grew quickly.  The photo above show them not long after they were transplanted into the potager, Aug. 12.  It was a bit late in our season when I planted them, but they quickly, grew to about 2 ½ feet in height.  The plants were sturdy, dark green, and didn’t flop or yellow.  Mad Hatter green compressed  The peppers themselves were about 2 ½” in diameter, with a unique shape that inspired the name because of its “hat shape” with a curvy “hat brim” atop what might be a person’s head Mad Hatter bottom compressed on the underside.  The “head” often gets a little more pronounced as the peppers grow.  As you can see, the peppers themselves are a pretty light, “chartreusey” green that eventually turn orange and then bright red.  (Excuse the wrinkled skins…I should have taken photographs earlier!)  Although the seed packet described the flavor as a “sweet citrusy flavor,” I found that they actually had some heat, especially near the seed cavity and as usual, the heat increased as the pepper matured.  Maybe that’s where the “Mad” part of the name occurred.  However, even ripe the heat was mild.  I used them raw and enjoyed their crunch and rich flavor, but the breeder says they are also excellent pickled, or stuffed with cheese, etc.  I’ll try that next year, but I used them a lot in salads at all stages of ripeness.

A bit of research finds that this new AAS Winner is a member of the unusual Capsicum baccatum species, originating in Bolivia and Peru.  The seed company indicates the plant will reach 3-4’ in height and may need support.  Mine didn’t get that tall, possibly because I planted them late, but they were amazingly productive.  I’m definitely growing them again for 2018, not only because they are so darn cute, but also because they were delicious, bountiful, easy, and fun.  Just one or two plants and you’ll be picking a peck of perky peppers!



Posted in gardening, kitchen gardens, peppers, Uncategorized, vegetable gardening | Tagged , , , , , , | 4 Comments